Alina O’Donnell
Sunset Ridge

where I grew up, there wasn’t much to do. It wasn’t within walking distance to a park, and no one I knew had a pool. “The field” was where my friends and I spent stifling summer afternoons practicing cartwheels and running through sprinklers. My house was right next to the field, which meant that all of the neighborhood kids came to my house to swing on the swing set and take breaks for popsicles. When darkness fell we’d run home with gummy fingers and gleaming foreheads to gather flashlights and jars for capturing fireflies. When I ran away from home when I was four years old, I packed a suitcase filled with plastic play food, my ballet costume, and a toothbrush, then sat in the middle of the field until my parents retrieved me. Looking back, it is hard to conceive that the same docile earth my friends and I plucked flowers from was laden with 12 inches of arsenic. My parents bought the house that abutted this field in 1990. Their first, it was a brick, single-family home, less than a year old and located in Burlington, NJ. It had been a model home, an exhibit for interested buyers. It had a sprawling backyard, large enough to accommodate a big, wooden swing set, walk-through garden, and a brick patio, and still have room for lawn parties. We were the last house of the cul-de-sac, so our property was fenced by a thicket of pine and maple trees, which, in autumn, supplied great leaf piles for jumping into. Historically, Burlington County, New Jersey, had been one of the state’s foremost agricultural counties. In 1940, Burlington County had 7,600 fruit orchards. By 1992, the year we moved in, that number had been whittled down to 745. And it wasn’t just the orchards that vanished. It seemed that each year
that passed, another row of the pine and maple trees framing my house was supplanted by cookie-cutter houses. When I looked out my bedroom window, I no longer saw thick forest, but a house that was virtually a clone of my own and a meager bulwark of trees my father planted to define our property line. These transformations didn’t just take place within the confines of our neighborhood. The orchards, farms, and parks we had passed on my bus ride to school had been trampled by a stampede of convenience stores and fast food restaurants: Wawas, Checkers, and 7-Elevens. It wasn’t long before the name “Sunset Ridge” was steeped in irony, as the housing development left so little of nature intact. My family became distraught over the devastation of our charming, pastoral community. Yet, it wasn’t this residential development that ushered the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection into our backyard in 1996. Almost two years earlier, the NJDEP launched an investigation of soil contamination in two housing developments in Burlington County as part of the lands’ sale to a new company. One of these developments was Sunset Ridge. The tests unearthed elevated levels of arsenic, lead, DDT, and DDT byproducts in 73 properties throughout Burlington Township. Both my property and the field beside it were rife with these chemicals. One contaminate found was dieldrin, an intensely toxic insecticide that was banned in 1986. The levels of dieldrin found were up to 14 times higher than the NJDEP mandated limits. By state law, the DEP was not required to inform the public, and chose not to. When the company selling the tract informed the DEP of its contamination in 1994, the two

Cole Caswell, Image 1


Alina O’Donnell is a junior at the University of Delaware, where she is majoring in English and Environmental Studies. Aside from contributing to the Review newspaper and Deconstruction magazine, Alina has worked as a tutor at her university’s writing center since her sophomore year. She has also been interning with Community Energy Inc., a developer and marketer of renewable energy, for the past year. When she graduates next May, Alina hopes to marry her two passions and work as an environmental reporter.